Corruption is one of the greatest challenges for Cambodia’s future political and economic development. Speaking during the first Cabinet meeting on September 26, 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen indicated that the fight against corruption would be a top priority for the government in its fifth mandate. And the growing consensus is that corruption in the education system must be urgently addressed because it may have broader implications on efforts to tackle the problem of corruption in other government institutions.
There has been lots of talk about the negative effects of corruption on the education system, such as low quality education, unqualified teachers, mismanagement of public funds, excessive bureaucratic burdens and so forth. Despite the fact that these cases provide important insights into the prevalence and complexity of corruption in the education system, there seems to be little discussion on how corruption might affect students’ behavior and opinions.
Beside a large pool of skilled labor, Cambodia also needs a hardworking young population that strongly values work and uses its knowledge and skills to achieve the best results. Young Cambodians should also be encouraged to believe that hard work will greatly help them to get to where they want to be in terms of their future career. However, corruption seriously undermines such attitudes and beliefs.
For example, if corruption is left uncontrolled in the education system, and students are able to bribe their teachers to get good grades or pass school exams, there are no incentives for them to work as hard as they should. Exams are designed to assess students’ ability and give them the incentives to learn their subjects. But instead, they are used as a tool for teachers and students to pursue their personal ends at the expense of a highquality education.
Worse yet, this problem might continue to affect students’ ability to study in postsecondary education. There are already many complaints about students not working hard enough, even if they have to face serious consequences such as low or failing grades. Of course, there are many other factors that contribute to students’ poor performance at university, but the inability of some students to deeply value their study, and work hard enough to achieve good grades, surely plays a role here.
Further, corruption can also influence the way that students view success in life. In some cases, young people even suggest that they don’t have to work very hard at school in order to have a good life—they might do just fine if they are able to get a government post, for they believe that they could amass a huge personal fortune through corruption. Whether it is true or not, such a view is indeed very disturbing and dangerous for the country.
Another major concern is that many students have been exposed to some forms of corruption or malpractices while in school. This exposure to corrupt practices might reduce students’ respect for laws and regulations. Tellingly, if they run into trouble with the school, they can often bribe their way out. A similar, vicious cycle of law breaking and bribery might lead to social disorder or even chaos.
The lack of respect for the law will also impede the government’s ability to develop the country. Taking traffic as an example, if people are caught breaking the laws, and they have the temptation to settle it through corruption, they might inadvertently help reinforce such malpractice. Of course, they might be forced to pay a bribe by traffic police officers, but with no significant punishment, the drivers are still the ones who decide to what extent they are willing to follow the traffic laws.
Fighting corruption in the education system is a complex task. Recently, the Education Ministry and the AntiCorruption Unit rolled out a number of measures to curb corruption during the high school exam from August 3 to 5. Civil society and private individuals have also been encouraged to join these efforts. It is understandable that people are skeptical about whether the government really has the commitment to do what it promises, given its troubling record.
But despite such skepticism, these measures give the government the best chance to take on one of the toughest governance issues, and prove to the public that they are really serious about education reforms this time around. Further, the successful implementation of these measures will also help restore public trust and confidence in the quality of the education system, which is extremely important if Cambodia wants to become a strong and prosperous country.
Phoak Kung is vice president for academic affairs at Mengly J. Quach University.